Historical Diaries on Twitter

I wrapped up my Life Writing classes in the Fall by asking my students to consider the relationship between historical genres like diaries and letters, and contemporary social media. One group of students, working on Twitter, conveyed their understanding of the links between past and present forms of self-representation by creating a Twitter profile for one of the historical diarists we had studied this semester, Annie Ray (whose diary is reprinted in Jennifer Sinor’s The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing). Ray is an exemplary “ordinary” diarist: recording her experiences in spare, fragmented language. Or, as my students noted: precisely the kind of writing required by Twitter’s 140 character limit:

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What my student’s didn’t know when they undertook this exercise is that there are several other Twitter accounts set up to reproduce historical diaries. I’ve written before about @TrapperBud, which was publishing Bud Murphy’s diary account of his gold rush experiences, and has now moved on to Matt Murphy’s diaries, dated from the 1920s.

Here are some others:

Samuel Pepys: @samuelpepys

Fanny Burney: @francesburney

John Quincy Adams: @jqadams_MHS

Genevieve Spencer: @Genny_Spencer

Andy Warhol: @warhollives

I am sure there are more, but these are the ones I’ve run across.

So, what are we to conclude from these Twitter accounts? Obviously, they do precisely what my students intended @annieraysdiary to do: they show that diaries and Twitter are closely aligned in form and content, essentially that Twitter can be considered a modern incarnation of the diary. Of course, they also show the differences, because more “literary” diaries with long reflective entries are not easily adaptable to Twitter. Rather, we see that one kind of diary (the “ordinary” kind, to use Sinor’s terminology) is being carried into the present through Twitter technology. Also, these Twitter accounts have a particularly playful quality because they invite the reader into the pretense that the historical diarist is tweeting her/his experiences directly. I think this makes the Twitter/historical diary mash-up unique. (There may be Facebook accounts written from the perspective of historical figures? I’m not on Facebook so I cannot verify this, and a little lite googling didn’t lead me anywhere.) As my students noted, there is something wonderful about imagining a historical figure like Annie Ray taking up her smart phone to record her life, just as so many of us do today.

For more:

Sean Munger, “How to be a historical figure on Twitter”


All Access, No Index

One of the early rallying cries for Digital Humanities was “access.” Finally, everything will be accessible. No longer will materials be held in specialized archives that are geographically remote to many, attached to elite educational institutions, and restrictive about who can read or handle their most precious documents. Instead, such materials would be available to everyone – openly, freely, democratically – thanks to the magic of digital technology.

While we haven’t quite reached the promised nirvana of universal access (as many people have before me pointed out — far more than I can cite), there are certainly more materials accessible now than in the past. Numerous DH projects have and continue to serve the basic purpose of providing a wide audience access to documents that would otherwise be difficult if not impossible to gain access to (manuscripts, codex, limited editions, etc.).

But, how are you supposed to find those projects?

If you happen to be a teacher, scholar, or general reader interested in William Blake, you can Google “William Blake” and pretty soon you’ll be perusing The William Blake Archive and looking at his line illustrations or paging through his manuscripts.

If, however, you happen to be a teacher, scholar, or general reader interested in African American life writing before the U.S. Civil War, you can Google a variety of search terms and never arrive at The Emilie Davis Diary. Unless you happen to have a serendipitous lead, there is a good chance that this resource will remain unknown to you because there is no good, reliable way of finding it.

Or take my research for example. I am interested in diaries; I want to say something meaningful about the diary as a genre but it is notoriously difficult to generalize about diaries. Diaries are as individual and idiosyncratic as their authors. The best way to prepare to address the diary as a genre is to read lots of different diaries by different people in different time periods, etc. DH would appear to be a salvation in this situation: I can read widely across the genre thanks to the digitization efforts of librarians, archivists, and literary critics. But only if I can find them. If you Google any combination of the terms “diary,” “journal,” “digital,” or “digitization,” you will get some interesting results — while missing almost everything you’re looking for. I can generally only find a source if I search by the author’s name, but that presumes I know he or she authored a diary in the first place.

One issue here is canonicity and the fact that DH is in danger of replicating and reinforcing the old canon. It makes sense: institutions and funding agencies are most likely to provide the resources to support a DH project that is anchored by a well-known historical or literary figure. There is a reason that John Adams’ papers are digitized and the Walt Whitman Archive continues to add more and more materials. These are amazing resources but let us not be blind to the fact that famous white male political figures and authors are the beneficiaries (when their papers were in no danger of being neglected) whereas so many other individuals remain hidden in the archives (if their papers were not lost already). Additionally, if your DH project is built around a well-known person, it is also more likely to become known and used. You’ll get traffic because Google will direct the right audience to your site.

So the canon issue leads us back to the issue I’m interested in, which is indexical: There is no index of Digital Humanities projects and Google (which pretends to be a comprehensive index of the internet) does not always serve us well. Of course there is no index of DH projects — there can be no index of DH because DH exceeds and disrupts the notion of what humanities work can be, and because not all DH projects are open-access websites. But, many are, and surely we want people to find those projects? If you build it but no one can find it or use it, does the project fulfill the basic premise of DH work?

In an essay in the Journal of  Digital Humanities, Trevor Muñoz argues that “data curation” should be considered a legitimate form of scholarly work. He writes:

The work of data curation—“active and on-going management of data through its lifecycle of interest and usefulness to scholarship, science, and education; … activities [which] enable data discovery and retrieval, maintain quality, add value, and provide for re-use over time” (Cragin et al. 2007) —should be legible as “publishing” work for libraries and scholars to do in much the same way that well-understood tasks related to preparing and circulating monographs or journals are already legible as publishing work.

I’m using this blog to host a modest data curation project, in the form of an index of digitized diaries. In the course of my research, I’ve stumbled across a host of amazing digitized diary projects and a recent query to the Society for the History of Authorship, History, and Publishing listserv yielded numerous more. The result is interesting cross-section of resources, indexed in this case by genre.

Data curation has its own limitations, particularly as practiced here: It requires maintenance and frequent updating to remain current, to make sure that the links remain active, etc. I can’t promise to give that kind of sustained attention to my Digitized Diary list – I simply don’t have the time – but I hope it serves others even as it furthers my own research goals.

I will be speaking about digitized diaries at the Texas Digital Humanities Conference in a few weeks, and thinking more about how good, reliable indexes of DH projects might serve as a kind of intellectual work — or, in my case, a step in a larger intellectual project.

Updated: See also the following resources:

Aisling D’Art’s “Historical Journals and Diaries Online”

About.com’s “Historical Diaries and Journals Online”

Patrick Sahle’s “Scholarly Digital Editions Catalog”

Paul K. Lyons’ “The Diary Junction”

Diary Tweets: Trapper Bud’s Diary

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It’s a pretty common perception that social media platforms like blogs and Facebook are modern iterations of the diary. You’ll see that argument made by academics who study contemporary life writing, by journalists who are interested in the development and use of social media, and by bloggers and Facebook-ers themselves. These different forms of self-expression have some things in common: they are self-disclosing records of life, often daily, usually mundane, and sometimes extremely private. There are obvious differences, of course — differences that have been analyzed closely by literary critics — notably that social media makes the text available to an audience of strangers and that the audience engages with, responds to, and essentially collaborates on the text.

Twitter, however, seems to be of another species altogether. Generally speaking, Twitter is less about individually recorded lives and more about conversation, debate, and sharing. You are much less likely to encounter the argument that Twitter is like, in any way, a diary — and I tend to agree with that distinction. If I were to make analogies, I would be more likely to compare Twitter to a telegram, to newspaper headlines, or to the running scroll at the bottom of the TV screen — short, impersonal announcements about events occurring in the public sphere.

Derryl Murphy is breaking down such distinctions with his @TrapperBud Twitter feed, where he is tweeting his grandfather’s diary. Bud Murphy was a trapper in the Northwest Territories in the 1920s and 30s and kept a daily record of his experiences. Derryl illuminates Bud’s narrative with illustrations and occasional commentary on his grandfather’s life. Here’s a post from Derry’s blog discussing the Twitter project. It is an intriguing use of Twitter: part recovery, part publication, part personal narrative. Plus, Bud lived a really incredible life — the kind of life that seems increasingly impossible in our world, one tied to nature and nature’s rhythms. I would love to know more about why Bud kept the diary in the first place. In the meanwhile, I look forward to seeing Bud’s “voice” intermingling with other tweets in my Twitter feed.

In the News: Crowdsourcing WWI Diaries

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It’s a fascinating idea: Digitize thousands of WWI diaries and invite the public — dubbed “citizen historians” — to annotate the documents. And, do it not under the aegis of a traditional academic institution or public sector organization but rather a newfangled quasi-academic, quasi-digital corporation: Zooniverse. It is a creative way of engaging amateurs in the work of historical research and the digital platform (from my brief exploration) is easy to use. I think that the pre-determined tags are limited and that a trained historian or literary critic would ask much more complicated questions about the content and significance of the documents than a simple tag can communicate. But, really, why quibble with the details when the project is so ambitious and impressive in its scope?

Zooniverse’s Operation War Diary

A BBC News article on the project, “Digitized WWI Diaries Highlight Battle Confusion”

In the News: Dr. Livingstone’s 1871 Field Diary In Living Color

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Screenshot of a page of Dr. Livingston’s diary, via the UCLA Multispectral Critical Edition

Yes, that Dr. Livingston.

The David Livingston Spectral Imaging Project at UCLA has succeeded in rendering Livingston’s fragile and mostly illegible diary available for modern readers. Livingstone wrote his diary on newspaper print with ink he made from berries. The Spectral Imaging Project not only makes the text legible, it has transcribed and digitized the entire document, and made it accessible on the web for free. The project is an impressive realization of the promise of digital humanities.

Read an account of this project at the Smithsonian Associates.

UCLA’s David Livingston Spectral Imaging Project

In the News: Confederate Diary De-Coded

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Via Huffington Post: A British Cryptographer has decoded a US Confederate soldier’s diary to discover that the code was intended to hide the soldier’s gossipy speculation about his superiors.

The complete diary of Lt. James M. Malbone is viewable here, thanks to the New York State Military Museum.

Kent D. Boklan’s account of his decoding process is available here, via Taylor & Francis (limited access).